My brother and I used to say that wood will warm us twice—once in the splitting and again in the burning. And it did, as we strained and dripped sweat, maneuvering our saws, axes, wedges and mauls to put up some firewood on a snappy autumn afternoon.
In the process of cutting (really ‘butchering’ is a better word) a 100-year-old oak that had been split in two by a massive charge of lightening in a summer storm, we discovered the tenacity and obduracy of this wood. One of our splitting wedges would disappear into the middle of the oak, swallowed up in a short piece of the trunk and nearly followed in by our maul. We drove another wedge into the heart of the tree and it too was lost among the ligaments and strands of the core of this tree so long in the making. A third wedge followed.
Finally, the 18-inch piece would yield, split and pulled apart, and the wedges would flop out onto the grass like small animals that had been taken into the mouth of a large beast and released only when the beast died.
We went on as long as our arms and backs would take us and realized that we could make a winter out of this, that we could swing and split and groan day after day for months and not finish off this great tree, this quercus quercus. And we did not. But there were more cold days to come and more occasions for splitting wood.
All days are good for splitting wood. Warm, with my shirt off, collecting sun and throwing off sweat. Snowing, in a warm hat and good gloves. Crisp and clear while the sounds of the ax finding its home in the middle of the wood ring through the trees standing around me. Ah the sound; the swing, the downward flight, then the sound.
The ax, balanced easily in my hands and then swung back in a graceful arc behind my back, over my head, racing down toward the cylinder of bark and watery tissue, then “Thok.” That is a good solid sound and there is a tearing too, as the wood separates, divides in two and drops dead on each side of its companion piece.
And the smells. In the fall, the earth is damp and sends up its own sweet perfume that must compete with the pungent oak, the sweet cedar or the fresh fir. Each entry of the steel into the wood brings a breath from the tree. Often I stop and hold the split wood close and breathe it deep into my lungs. Each day outside splitting wood bring some new sound, smell or feeling. It may be the ax, the maul, the wet leather gloves, the noisy jays that review my performance, the damp leaves on the ground or the sun in the dry dust.
There is no better day than this one– a chilly, foggy morning with no promise of sun. There is enough mist in the air to wet my hair and color the wood more intensely. It is a weekday, quiet and still. Several alders have been felled alongside a seasonal creek and then sawed into lengths that will squeeze through the fireplace door. Gray and green bark, dotted with black and white fungi, frames a wet orange circle of wood. No two pieces are the same.
Small dark branches, knots, scars, small limbs, slots from the chain saw and crotches in the trunk give each round a different look, a different invitation to be split. They stand each in their own way on the splitting block, which is one of their own, and ask for their own angle, stroke and strength in the down stroke.
The splitting wedge, eight pounds of steel hung out on the end of a hardwood handle, employs considerably less nuance than the sharpened ax. The wedge depends, like a Sumo wrestler, on its weight and bulk. It is neither polite nor clean and does not apologize for the crude way it divides the alder down the middle. Alder, compliant, fresh and innocent compared to the old oak, surrenders easily to the repetitive swing of the maul. Again and again, the short log divides and falls easily to the wet grass.
No other sound. The dark wet bark parts on each side of the steel and reveals a clean, white middle that nearly glows in the morning mist. The shiny green grass, laden with rain, surrounds a growing pile of gray, black, orange and creamy white. These are the short strokes on the artist’s palette.
My breathing becomes steadily heavier and louder with the rhythm of the steel maul. I lay it down alongside the wood. Then I begin to grab the slippery, short pieces of wood and toss them into the dull blue wheelbarrow and they “thong,” “sprong” and “thunk” against the metal sides.
I dream, as I push the wheelbarrow across the field, feeling the water run down my nose and cheeks, feeling my heart beat. I dream of the evening and of laying the fire, of hearing the first crackles as the small pieces catch. I assure myself that I will remember each piece I put on the fire and how it split in two and how it fell.
John Thomas Wood